The gratuitous use of plastic

At the dawn of the plastic age, it was a cheap substitute. The word “plasticky” is not a compliment.

Over time, the plastics industry developed new finishes, colors and most of all, cultural impact, and extra (wasted) plastic packaging was seen first as convenient, then as a sign of status.

I just got a lovely digital recorder in the mail. The thoughtfully-designed and well-constructed device weighs 6 ounces. The box it came in, on the other hand, is difficult to open and hard to re-use. It weighs 11 ounces.

The plastic in this box, and in so many other over-wrought packages, will never go away. It cannot be recycled. It will either end up burned or in the ocean or a landfill, where it will remain for more than a million years.

Gratuitous used to mean, “freely bestowed.” By overinvesting in something that’s not required, a marketer demonstrates confidence, status and power. But now, gratuitous means inefficient, grating and wasteful.

Marketers seek to tell a story of better. But better changes. Better might be more convenient, cheaper, efficiently designed, higher utility, more exclusive, mainstream, or simply fun. But better is no longer associated with wasteful.

There are a few questions where the answer is ‘plastic.’ But we’re all discovering that it comes at a real cost. Instead of raising the status of the companies that use it in marketing, it is now a lazy, shameful shortcut.

With surprisingly little effort, we can raise the bar on better.

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